Last month I started talking about open source alternatives to SharePoint for document management and team collaboration. Before getting into the merits of any particular solution let me say a bit more about the business problem that’s behind the evaluation. 

As a writer I read a lot and I accumulate material in the form of documents, articles, images, video clips, podcasts and web links, all of which serves as research for things I write about. As a consultant I also need to organize project files, provide the means to ensure that confidential files are maintained securely, to share documents with clients and provide them with a way to give feedback on in-process material.

My ideal content management solution would make it easy to capture material into a secure repository, organize it for retrieval, publish it to different audiences and enable some degree of collaboration. Stated more formally, the features that matter most to me can be summed up in a series of user stories that represent three perspectives.

As a content creator I need to

  • Capture documents and other items from a variety of sources into a single repository;
  • Store items that are in a different native formats (e.g., Word document, Excel, PDF, image, hyper-link);
  • Organize content according to subject headings, author, source and other metadata elements;
  • Maintain lists of work items, issues and events; and
  • Use a single point of entry for both content creation and reading.


As a content reader I need to

  • Search for content using keyword values;
  • Filter a search result to refine the scope; and
  • Retrieve documents on a variety of devices (e.g., desktop, tablet, smart phone).

As a system owner I need a system that is

  • Easy to install and configure;
  • Adaptable to changing needs without programming; and
  • Well-supported by the vendor and user community.

It’s a simple list, and there are plenty of open source products out there that do all of these things. The first candidate for a close look is Magnolia-CMS.


Magnolia comes from Magnolia International Ltd., in Switzerland. Their focus is delivering robust content management and web site editing capabilities in order to support marketing, sales and service applications. The company has been around for more than a decade, long enough for the product to gain a lot of popularity and accumulate an impressive customer list

Provided under an Open Source license, Magnolia comes in both a community edition, and an enterprise edition. The latter offers some extra functionality, and it is distributed on a subscription fee basis. Fees, which start at about $15K annually, provide the company with a revenue stream to support continued development.

Under the hood, Magnolia is built on Java-based technology, which makes it appealing to organizations who are have adopted Java and J2EE as their platform for web-based business solutions.

For those who don’t want to get too close to the technology Magnolia is highly configurable. Business users can take on much of the site layout design and content management work that would otherwise be left up to the IT folks to administer. That said, do not under-estimate the amount of work involved in building a fully functional site. It’s a steep learning curve.

A few other first impressions from downloading and installing the community edition:

  • Download and installing the community edition is quick, simple and well-documented. Following the detailed instructions provided on the web site, I had a site up and running in less than 30 minutes.

  • Some expertise in managing an Apache / Tomcat web server is an essential skill for deploying Magnolia, even for an intranet application.

  • Lots of modules available to deliver specific functions in a customer-facing web site.

  • Documentation is very thorough and well-organized.

  • Very strong separation of author and Public (i.e., reader) access to content with separate sites within the overall framework for these two modes of access.

Magnolia is truly an enterprise-class product. It didn’t take very long to realize that it was intended for a customer with a different set of needs that mine. It is worth a serious look for anyone who is interested in a Java-based platform that offers strong content management capabilities for delivering web-based content to a broad audience. Scaling it down to fit the needs of a smaller organization would be challenging.